Review: Soul Boy (2010)


You won’t find any modern Hollywood films that are half as honest about class as Soul Boy. Hawa Essuman’s film offers an unvarnished look into life in the Kenyan slum of Kibera, one of the massive shantytowns on the outskirts of the capital, Nairobi. While Hollywood fetishizes poverty or only sees poverty as a momentary setback on the road to middle-class normalcy, Soul Boy understands that being poor is not a transient state and that the poor are not devoid of happiness or community or any of  the hallmarks of human complexity. That being said, Soul Boy does not throw convention by the wayside in its story of a boy named Abila (Samson Odhiambo) racing against the clock to save his father’s soul. In fact, it’s a classic quest narrative, with Abila having to complete several tasks in order to restore his shopkeeper father’s soul and save him and his family from the wrath of a spiteful witch.

The mythical framework is a classical way to approach a poor child’s story. Charles Dickens’ novels play with fate in this manner, while even Harry Potter has elements of this approach. Where Soul Boy differs is that Abila doesn’t discover he’s rich by the film’s end; his poverty is a fact, not a condition or ailment, so he isn’t cured of it by the end of the story, although that doesn’t mean life cannot improve for him or that a triumph is somehow denied him.

The film only runs 61 minutes and moves with a narrative efficiency that isn’t present in most debut features, especially ones made on as low a budget as Soul Boy. It starts with Abila finding his father in a delirious state, muttering that he’s lost his soul. He learns his father spent the previous night with a witch who took his soul from him and when Abila finds her, she charges him with several tasks to complete in order to win his father’s soul back. The tasks are not concrete actions; they’re vague and their meaning depends on Abila’s own interpretation of them. There’s a touch of Slumdog Millionaire here, another Hollywood tale of poverty (complete with Dickensian riches at the end), in how the tasks align perfectly with Abila’s own experiences; he seems fated to complete them just as Jamal is fated to answer the questions in that film.

Despite the fanciful nature of the plot, director Hawa Essuman doesn’t embellish the presentation of the story or do much to dull the harsh realities of the world Abila inhabits. The realism of the story world checks the indulgences of the magical elements, and vice versa. For instance, the almost-magical elements don’t distract from the fact that Abila’s home is a hovel and that his father drinks too much or that he’s berated for his friendship with Shiku (Leila Dayan Opou), a girl from another tribe. But Essuman doesn’t revel in the drab realities of Abila’s life either; she pays as much attention to his easy-going friendships with other boys in Kibera or the way that Shiku smiles with genuine affection at Abila as she does to the harshness of his poverty. As I said earlier, Soul Boy does not see poverty as anything to be ashamed of, nor does it reduce the human scope of its characters and their lives to their class.

What the film’s focus on poverty does accomplish, however, is fascinating class observations. The scenes between the children communicate the tribal tensions within the slum, while a later scene where Abila accompanies his aunt to a white family’s wealthy estate hits home how many of the challenges Abila faces are the result of his class. The white family is not cruel, nor are they caricatures, but after an act of heroism, they reward Abila with a casualness that is stunning in juxtaposition to the desperation displayed earlier in the film.

For instance, a sequence earlier in the film shows Abila help out a man who steals a mobile phone in desperation. Abila hides him from the mob, only for the man to give Abila the phone in payment for saving his life. Abila considers using the phone to pay his father’s debts, because the amount of money its worth would solve most of their problems, but Abila does the right thing and returns it to its owner. Later, with the white family, Abila comes into a sum of money far greater than the phone was worth, but the white father brushes it off as a mere act of charity; for him, it’s as simple as writing a cheque for an amount that he wouldn’t even notice missing from his bank account, while for Abila, the money is literal redemption for him and his father. It’s life and death.

Essuman never hammers home this message, despite how obvious it is. She lets it arise through the naturalistic moments between the characters and the way she simply places one scene alongside another, with the contrast supplying all the emphasis needed. It’s this light touch that makes Soul Boy such an enjoyable viewing experience. For western viewers, it’s an illuminating look into the life of a poor boy in Kibera, since the culture as depicted is worlds away from life in the West, but it’s also a charming quest playing in the classical tradition.

No wonder Tom Tykwer and his production company One Fine Day Films saw such promise in Essuman and the filmmakers behind Soul Boy that they decided to fund the film. They demonstrate a mature filmmaking sense, one that showcases a world with integrity and honesty, while also casually acing the conventions of classical storytelling. Thus, Soul Boy may seem amateur in performance and budget, but its storytelling is anything but.

7 out of 10

Soul Boy (2010, Kenya)

Directed by Hawa Essuman; written by Billy Kahora; starring Samson Odhiambo, Leila Dayan Opou, Krysteen Savane, Frank Kimani, Joab Ogolla, Lucy Gachanja, Katherine Damaris, Kevin Onyango Omondi, Calvin Shikuku Odhiambo, Nordeen Abdulghani.